UM turns 150 with eyes on rank, research

March 06, 2006|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK -- Charles Benedict Calvert's 19th-century view from the upper floors of his family's 2,000-acre Riversdale plantation took in rolling pastures, woods, and perhaps ox carts and hay wagons plodding toward the narrow, dirt road called the Baltimore-Washington Turnpike.

His mind's eye saw other possibilities.

This descendant of the fifth Lord Baltimore envisioned the American farmer groomed as soil scientist, the country building schools that would, as he put it, "elevate the agricultural profession, and prevent the ambitious and high-minded sons of agriculturalists from abandoning the homes of their fathers, to seek distinction in other professions."

Within months of that speech before the Frederick County Agricultural Society in 1855, the General Assembly chartered the school that is now the University of Maryland, College Park. The college that struggled to get off the ground turns 150 years old today and by some measures is as strong as it has ever been.

The campus today celebrates Charter Day, the anniversary of the legislature's approval of the school charter. An actor portraying Calvert will be among those at the student union for the ceremonial cutting of a two-tiered cake iced with the school seal, and serving of 2,500 cupcakes. That's one cupcake for every 10 of the 25,000 undergraduates who attend College Park, along with nearly 10,000 graduate students.

Today's ceremony is part of months of anniversary events including an exhibition on and around campus of 50 decorated figures of Testudo, the school's terrapin mascot, a Maryland Public Television showing of a College Park history documentary, and a Maryland Day celebration April 29 featuring a 384-square-foot strawberry shortcake.

Today's cake is considerably more modest, to be sliced by university President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. Mote, who took office in 1998, has been running with the baton passed by his predecessor, William E. Kirwan, in claiming the school's place among the country's best public universities. Mote says he considers this a mandate from the legislature, which in 1988 wrote into law College Park's position as a "flagship" school.

In remarks to the General Assembly last month, Mote said that as important as the school is to the state now, it will be more valuable still in 2011 "when it achieves a Top 10 ranking."

Not if, but when.

Mote acknowledges that college rankings are "all very fuzzy, of course," given the array of ratings in sundry categories available. Still, the school boasts of its climb up the ladder constructed by U.S. News & World Report, the most prominent among national standings.

In rankings published last summer, U.S. News placed College Park 18th among 162 public universities. When the magazine first created a specific ranking of public institutions in 1998, the school ranked 30th.

Rising further, says Mote, means recruiting the best students and faculty. That means continuing to improve programs, which means, in part, more money. If the school wants to be counted among the five public universities designated by the state as "peers" - all of which were rated in the top 11 by U.S. News last year - it's going to have to spend $120 million more a year, Mote says.

Running the school now costs $1.2 billion a year - a combination of tuition, state allocation, research grants, fund raising, athletics and fees. Undergraduates from Maryland pay more than $17,000 a year for tuition, room, board and fees. Out-of-state students, who make up 25 percent of undergraduates, pay nearly $30,000. Tuition has risen about 35 percent since 2002.

"I think the only thing holding us back is resources," says Mote. "I think our direction is extremely solid - it's very entrepreneurial; it's very creative."

Since the late 1990s, College Park has been trying to expand learning outside the classroom. In one case, that has meant setting up separate dormitories so students can work together with faculty guidance on entrepreneurial projects.

In another program, students work together on one public interest problem - nuclear waste disposal was one example - for their four years on campus, finishing the project by presenting a report to a professional or industry group.

Mote says he would like to see every undergraduate given chances to study or work overseas, and to expand the already broad array of internships available at laboratories, businesses and government agencies in the area.

The school is taking the anniversary as a moment to blow its own horn about its research and its contributions to the Maryland economy.

Research grants have jumped from $102 million a year in 1990 to $350 million now - "a very respectable number," says Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities.

The AAU includes 60 schools in the U.S. and two in Canada that are considered strong in research. College Park has been a member since 1969.

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